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Danish filmmaker emerges from `Dark'

The following article was originally published on May 28th, 2000.

CANNES, France--We gather silently on a hillside above the sea, with a view of the mountains in the far mist. It is like a hospital waiting room. Farther down the hillside, we can see Lars von Trier sitting in the shade of a cabana, giving an interview. He is famously phobic--worried about elevators, closed spaces, upper floors, crowds. Here at the Hotel du Cap d'Antibes, he is surrounded by light and air.

Von Trier preoccupied the Cannes Film Festival this year. His film, "Dancer In The Dark," inspired the most passion, pro and con, and a few days later would win both the Palme d'Or and the best actress award. He plunges into the action with a hand-held video camera, and for musical numbers he employed 100 video cameras at once, finding the choreography in the editing process. His Dogma 95 movement, a cinematic vow of chastity, has had an influence with its ban on most of the strategies of the traditionally well-made film.

If von Trier is phobic, he has been upstaged by his star, the Icelandic pop singer Bjork. She did come to Cannes, and was embraced by von Trier, lifted off the ground and spun around, during the ovation after the official screening of the film. But then she refused to attend the news conference, refused all interviews, skulked and disappeared--only to surface, radiant, at the awards ceremony, where she was an unexpected but popular winner.

The Danish director has not learned the art of spin control, and said bluntly during his news conference that working with her was "like being around a dying person all the time." She is not an actor, he said, but someone who felt her character's experiences were literally real. Since she is condemned to death in the film, "It was extremely awkward, because I was like her executioner."

In the film, Bjork plays a punch press operator in Washington state in the early 1960s who is going blind and wants money for an operation for her son, who faces the same fate. She is not good at protecting herself, and her behavior after being charged with murder is a study in wrong things said, and right ones left unsaid. It's an odd quality of this film and "Breaking the Waves" (1996), which won the Cannes jury prize, that the heroines are apparently mentally retarded, and yet no one (in the film or even in the reviews) ever seems to mention that--as if their childlike simplicity is a trait and not a symptom.

As for von Trier himself, when I descend to the cabana, it is a surprise. I expect a menacing, dogmatic, unyielding, angry man--the man who was so unhappy to win the jury prize for "Breaking the Waves" and not the Palme d'Or that in his acceptance speech he gave "no thanks to the evil dwarf," a reference to jury president Roman Polanski. Here before me was a slight, informal, friendly person, wearing a T-shirt and sitting in the shade with a bottle of mineral water.

He has not read any of the reviews of his film, he said. That would include the Variety review, which was brutal ("auteurist self-importance that's artistically bankrupt on almost every level").

"I've heard from some journalists that there are some Americans who don't like it because they think it is an unfair image of America, which I am sure it is, since I have never been to America," he says. Because he will not fly, he found locations in Sweden that looked like Washington, and rented lots of old American cars. "It was by chance that we found these old machines, so we could build our factory."

Bjork's co-star in the film is Catherine Deneuve, certainly the most beautiful punch press operator in movie history. I asked if her presence was distracting for this story.

"That's a problem with all stars, isn't it? Actually, she was very good at the punch press. I have a sink back home that she did." As for reality, "I just want things to be possible. Anyway, possible enough that the audience will believe that it could happen in this film."

I mentioned his difficulties with Bjork.

"I never said it was difficult," von Trier commented. "To make her deliver what she has delivered on the screen was extremely easy. She is the ideal of an actor. She believed everything that was happening in the story. What was not so easy was that it was extremely painful for her."

She treated you like her executioner?

"Yes, and that is not very nice. I don't think I would like to be an executioner. The way she worked, she couldn't look at me in any other way than as the man who wanted her to go through all this suffering. It's hard enough being a director and a producer who stupidly enough has got into a project where he could lose not only his company but his home, where his children live, and his entire fortune."

That was a reference to Bjork's attempts to escape from the film, a $20 million production that would have collapsed without her.

The film began with his desire to make a musical. He hired Bjork after seeing her in music videos. He loved the old Gene Kelly musicals from Hollywood, but wanted a different look, which he has certainly achieved. One musical number is staged on a railroad bridge with a real train rumbling past inches from the actors. Others are on the shop floor and in prison.

His plot, about a woman betrayed by a weak cop, is straight out of silent melodrama, or opera. "After I wrote the whole script, I saw a little cartoon with a blind girl," von Trier said. "I thought, wow, that's fantastic! So then she became blind all of a sudden, just by chance."

As the principal author of the Dogma 95 statement, von Trier is now a leader of a movement, a small one, with Danish allies such as Thomas Vinterberg ("The Celebration") and one American disciple, Harmony Korine ("Julien Donkey-Boy").

"I must shamefully admit I haven't seen the film that he did," he said, "but I talked a lot with Harmony. He is a very nice young man, very strange. Of course the Dogma rules were meant for me. I would like somebody to come to me and say I was not allowed to do this or that. I had spent so much time on a crane, on planning a camera movement, on working with the color, on trying to make interesting sound afterward, on putting in music. . . . I made a full list, and thought it would be extremely interesting for me to do a film that banned all of these things. These limitations give us a new freedom and a new lust for film."

Much of the film is shot with a hand-held camera, and its rapid movement caused some people in the front rows to feel vertigo.

"I know. It was the same for `Breaking the Waves.' I handle the camera myself. I am well-situated to work with the actors. It's a pity to make actors leave the room while the cameraman sets up the shot.

"I feel so much in contact with the actors. I'm not framing. Dogma is not about framing, but pointing. I pointed the camera toward what I wanted, or what I knew Bjork could give. In some of the closeups you can feel that I am physically very close to her. I think her performance benefits from this."

You are not the kind of person I expected, I said. From your fearsome reputation, I came expecting Sam Peckinpah, but you are more like Francois Truffaut.

He smiled, "If people want to talk to me, I am happy. But if you come and yell at me then I have an attitude. I accept that people like or dislike, but when they hate me and want to hit me, then I can show another side. Not that I want a fight. As you see, I am very small. In the schoolyard I invented techniques of fleeing that you wouldn't believe."

Copyright © Chicago Sun-Times Inc.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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